Gary James' Interview With Beatles Photographer
In 1965 The Beatles were truly at the height of their fame. Bill Carlson was a high school student at the time with a keen interest in photography. Working for photographer Merle Morris in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Bill was able to obtain press passes for The Beatles' press conference and concert in Minneapolis.
Q - Why didn't Merle Morris have more interest in The Beatles' August 21st, 1965 concert in Minneapolis? Did he have the feeling The Beatles were just a passing fad?
A - Well, it was their only visit to Minneapolis - St. Paul at that time I was a kid in high school. I was the junior photographer / darkroom guy, prop room sweeper outer. (laughs) I did just about everything, but Merle happened to be my boss. He happened to be a great mentor and he allowed me to use any of the materials, the photography equipment in the studio as long as I showed him what I did. So, I was constantly looking for different things to photograph. I wasn't a Beatles fan at that point. I was a trombone player, into Jazz and Classical, which pretty much assured that I would never have a date. (laughs)
Q - If you'd only taken up the guitar.
A - Yeah. We were affiliated with U.P.I. (United Press International) and they would send us press passes for just about every major event in Minneapolis. They would just blanket us through the old telex machine and then if they wanted coverage of it, they would say "We want coverage of it." Because of Shea Stadium and some of the other big Beatles events they just decided to take a pass on this event. And I asked my boss if I could have the press passes. He said "Sure. We're not interested." A bunch of old farts. It's like going to a Back Street Boys concert. (laughs) Nobody ever knew at that point where The Beatles would go. I said "Great. I'll take them and go out and shoot." I borrowed a camera from Merle and I had my little 35 and I went out and shot about twenty rolls of stuff. Just had a great time. I really enjoyed it. During the press conference, I really got to like 'em. They were really funny and relaxed. Tony Barrow, who is now a friend of ours, we contributed photos to Tony's book on The Beatles and we keep in touch with Christmas. We're on his Christmas card list.
Q - You saw The Beatles arrive at the airport. You went to the press conference and got to talk to George Harrison. Putting myself back in that time, it was a big deal. Help! was out.
A - Oh, it was huge.
Q - Yet, you weren't intimidated.
A - I really wasn't. After I got to photograph them, I just got this great impression of these nice guys. I started listening to their music. I wasn't a Rock 'n' Roll fan before. Then, as they progressed through Sgt. Pepper, through the India period and doing all these wonderful experimental things after Brian (Epstein) passed away, I just became a big fan. But I wasn't a big fan in the early days. There was Eric Burdon And The Animals, The Rolling Stones. I actually ran into Eric Burdon a few years back. It was in Germany as a matter of fact. But, they were kind of a blur in all the British Invasion bands. But, the fact was they were really popular. I began to really like their music as they began to evolve as musicians. They're great. I continued to be a Beatles fan along with my kids. (laughs)
Q - Did you meet Brian Epstein?
A - I did not meet Brian. At that particular concert, if you look through the book (The Beatles - A One Night Stand In The Heartland - Cumberland House) you'll see George Harrison getting a guitar from an organization here in Minneapolis called B Sharp Music. They were the big Rock 'n' Roll music guys at that time. I happened to know 'em 'cause I had done some band photography...local band photography at the time. When he got the guitar, the press conference kind of broke up and everybody scattered in all these directions. I was a little guy and I got kind of pushed in the corner with George. He was holding the guitar. I couldn't think of anything to say. I probably was intimidated. I looked at the guitar. I looked at him and said "Nice guitar." (laughs) He looked at me and said "Yeah, lovely." (laughs) So, that was the extent of our exchange. But they just seemed like really genuine guys from Liverpool, in awe of their own success.
Q - Did you tell your classmates that you attended a Beatles press conference?
A - Yeah. They thought it was pretty cool. I'd been a photographer all through high school. Photography is still my passion...still work in the business. They thought it was pretty cool and I printed up a few shots and they put it in the high school newspaper. Then I stuck 'em in my files. The next year I shot Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys and Louie Armstrong and some other artists for a music magazine I was working for. And so everything kind of sat in the files. Over the years I made a few prints here, a few prints there. Denise (work associate) really encouraged me a few years ago to get these going. We've been together for about nine years now. When she first met me, I had a couple of the photos around the office, my office, my studio here in Minneapolis. She said "Where did you get these? Target?" (laughs) I said "Well, I actually hate to admit it, but I took 'em." She said "Wow! We should do something with 'em." And of course being the go-getter she is, she went out and did something about it. She got a publisher. Overall, I was pretty pleased with the book. There were a few things I would've done differently and we will in our second printing. But the thing that is nice about the book is that people really like it. They really enjoy it. My feeling is that digital photography has changed a lot of things in the sense that there were a lot of photographs that I just would have deleted if it had been digital. But of course with a negative, you can't delete 'em. You process 'em, stick 'em in an envelope and there they are. So, a lot of photos that are in the book really speak to people, and that's the most important thing.
Q - You mentioned that you did get to speak with George. How about the other Beatles, did you talk to them?
A - No, I didn't. They were kind of swept away at that point. And of course, I wasn't a reporter.
Q - I'm still surprised that you could put the negatives of The Beatles press conference away for forty years and never think about them.
A - I shot a lot of celebrities at that time. I was very young. I moved from Minneapolis to Honolulu for quite a long time and I was a Newsweek and Life magazine stringer out there. So, I shot General Westmorland, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, all these people for my job. It didn't occur to me because it seemed to be rather old news. Then I had an assistant several years ago who ran across them in my files and said "You should really print a couple of these. These are really nice." (laughs) The joke is they stayed under my bed for forty years. I didn't think they were so big. Richard Avedon. They were such a big deal. I didn't really think that my little photos were of much value in that whole thing and I was moving into film and other directions. It didn't occur to me until my assistant said something and then Denise picked up on it. She said "There may be some people out here who would really like to see these." It's been fun. It's been a great journey because we've gotten calls from the cops who were at the press conference. "I was there. Do you have a picture of me?" "Yeah, we do." (laughs) So, we printed up a picture of the cop. Those kind of things are really fun. People will show up at these Beatlefests and say "Hey, I was there! The guy who let me in was my buddy. He was a ticket-taker." At that time I didn't have a book, so I went to the laptop and said "I think I have a photo of a ticket-taker." And sure enough, it was his buddy. So, we made a print and he gave it as a Christmas present to his old buddy, forty years ago.
Q - This particular concert in Minneapolis did not sell out. Why would that have been?
A - Now, you probably know more of the detail around this, but Reggie Colihan, or "Big Reggie", was the promoter and he goes down in history as the only guy that lost money on both The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. (laughs) He was so terrible at the promotion. It didn't fill out because the rumor has it that they were afraid of a riot, so they didn't really promote it. But, in some of the photos in the book, you see the empty stands. So, I think there were 30,000 people there with the potential of 40 or 45,000. Some of the shots I got from the edge of the field show there are empty stands behind 'em. But, that's the legend. I don't know if that's actually true. But, Reggie got a real reputation for losing money on concerts, losing money on sure things.
Q - The Beatles stayed at a place called The Leamington Motor Inn. What kind of place was that?
A - Well, it wasn't a super fancy hotel, but it wasn't a dump either. It's now a homeless shelter. (laughs) The Leamington at that time was a fairly up-scale hotel. It was like a Hilton. At that time it was probably nice. I never made it down there, but they got a real reputation in town. I think we have some quotes in the book from the police chief, because there were girls up in the room.
Q - Page 72 of your book; from an article in the St. Paul Pioneer Express, "Ringo puffed constantly on a cigarette and Paul fiddled with a huge cigar. They were way out...out farther than astronauts Copper and Conrad." What does that mean?
A - (laughs) I wouldn't agree with that characterization. I think they were just trying to have fun. They didn't seem way out to me at all.
Q - It could've been a put on.
A - Yeah. Some of it could've been a put on. For me, I didn't pick up on that at all. They were really connected and really nice and very un-assuming for the amount of fame that they had. That was just my impression at the time and frankly, that was always my impression. When I did become a fan and really started listening, I bought The White Album, which I loaned to someone and never got it back. I bought all their albums. I thought they were really straight-forward. I thought if you wanted pretentious, look at Keith Richards. (laughs) But, I thought there were a lot of musicians who were a lot more pretentious than The Beatles were. No offense to Keith. He's still in the game. He's the luckiest guy walking around. (laughs)